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Chumash Rock Art

The rock art of the Channel Islands region is one of the most well known prehistoric art in the world. The polychrome ( multi-colored ) works of the Chumash attest to a mastery of a visual communication form that embodies the beliefs of generations of Native Americans who lived in the Channel region upwards to ten thousand years. With no written alphabet available to record their people’s stories, these rock paintings are the enduring record of Native American interests and beliefs.

On the mainland, major rock art sites are still being discovered, particularly after years of devastating fires that burn away chaparral scrub, new sites are still being discovered - and - often their locations are being carefully protected from the serious problem of vandalism.

The most accessible rock art site is under California State Park protection, and is in the hills behind Santa Barbara. Known simply as Painted Cave, it is a wonderful sandstone room that follows a natural cave in a sandstone rock formation. On its ceiling and wall - over a continuous surface - is a painting of many complimentary images - wheeling sun shapes, abstract plant and animal forms - all rendered in red, white and black on the yellow sandstone surface.

Other Chumash cave sites are further back in the mountains in the Sierra Madre range. These too are well protected rock caves that have deep overhangs to protect the pigment from the weather. In some cases the natural erosion of the sand stone from moisture and wind is severely damaging the paintings; in other cases vandals have carved names - even shot bullets - into the prehistoric paintings. The images in the paintings are being interpreted by scholars as celestial bodies - stars, planets, constellations, the milky way, the sun and the moon. There are also images that have human-like heads with striped bodies - thought to be their shame, the religious leaders of the aantap mystic cult. Animals are also featured - forms that look like swordfish, salamanders, centipedes, and indescribable beings with strange legs and heads and undulating bodies are common.

Scientists and historians have attempted to decipher the meaning of these mysterious symbols. While it is possible to attach proposed meanings to the symbols, there is no definite answer to their meaning. It has been speculated that the paintings were done as part of a religious ceremony, or as part of an initiation rite that was a vision quest.

One of the most interesting paintings historically speaking, portrays a Chinese junk, and it is unknown whether that ship passed their shores from Asia before or after the first European arrival with their very different multi-masted tall ships. This site is near Point C onception, and would have been with in hiking distance of a view of the ships sailing down the California coast using the Asian-Pacific current.

Camp Internet has hosted several Rock Art exhibits and special events over the years in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Chumash Reservation to share this fascinating art form with the public. But perhaps the most touching of the exhibits was a display in downtown Santa Barbara of rock art made only recently by Chumash children living on the Santa Ynez Reservation as a project to help them regain their own history and native cultural identity.

Gabrielino Rock Art

In the inland valleys surrounding the Los Angeles Basin, where Gabrielion peoples lived prior to European arrival, there was extensive contact and trade with their island counterparts. The rock art from these inland valleys include both petroglyphs ( carvings ) and painted images ( pictographs ). In their region, three styles of rock art have been identified by scholars.

Riverside MazeStyle- carved maze like forms on large outdoor boulders and outcroppings of stone, sites include mountain ridgetops behind Orange and Hemet, color difference between the surface patina ( lichen, mineerals, and weathering ) and the interior of the rock formations is what causes the mazes to be strikingly visible to the eye when carved - a light against dark effect.

California Rectilinear Abstract Style - geometric forms painted on boulders and sheltered overhangs, painted using red, white and black natural pigments from ground minerals. Shapes used were zig zags, diamond chains, straight lines, parallel lines, cross hatching, ( the previous forms also common to hand held carvings from through out the region ), and hand prints.

Abstract Polychrome Style - stylistically similar to the Chumash style to the North - multi colored painted images of creatures, celestial events, and other abstractions of the natural, cosmological and mythical realms understood by the Native Americans.

Rock Art on the Islands

There is only minimal evidence of rock art on the Islands, but it does exist. There are both carved ( petroglyphic ) and painted ( pictogrpahic ) rock art sites on the Islands. Hand held painted rocks have also been discovered .

On Santa Cruz Island, the largest in the archipelago, there are several rock art sites, with one well developed with both pictographs and petroglyphs ( paintings and carvings ). The forms are reportedly lines, dots and rake figures. On Santa Rosa Island another small rock art site was been found in 1901, and is reportedly comprised of both petroglyphs and pictographs and located in a canyon. There are also rock art sites reported on Catalina that are in the elaborate Chumash style.

Sand Art

There are a Spanish accounts of a visit to Santa Catalina and another to the mainland villages that comments on the use of sand paintings by the Pimugans. At the Native Americans ceremonial enclosures, the Spanish noted the use of colored pigments to paint astronomical images - suns and moons - outside the enclosure, and that feathered poles were also used for ornamentation outside these special enclosures. They reported that insid the neclosure, called a yovaar, there was a focal point, like an altar, where a sculptural figure was mounted on a central pole. While the Spanish mistook this sculpture to have demonic meaning, it was probably part of their main religions system which focused on a hero / creator god called Chengiichngech.

Sand painting is quite possibly an art form that was known to many Native American tribes in the Southwest as it is a very important healing and ceremonial activity in the Navajo tribe, and it is known the pueblo and high desert tribes fo the Southwest had trade contact with the coastal tribes.

Rock Art Gallery

Photos of Painted Cave

Wes Chapin of California State Parks introduces the Chumash Painted Cave Site            Video            Audio